Northampton Saints’ Premiership Rugby Cup campaign opened with a heart-breaking late defeat to London Irish at Gtech Community Stadium.
A solid first half display saw Saints take a 19-point advantage to the changing rooms, but the home side flipped momentum on its head when the action resumed, grinding their way back into the contest before a penalty try in added time stole it.
Phil Dowson’s side headed home with two bonus points for their effort, though these seemed scant consolation after an assured display in the opening 40 had established a strong lead.
Despite another chance for Courtnall Skosan being ruled out for a knock-on in the build-up, the pressure finally told when Sam Graham muscled over for his first try in Saints colours.
Grayson converted for 0-7 and was successful with the extras once more when James Ramm made another bout of pressure count close to the posts.
The Aussie fullback soon added to his account when he slid over on the right for a second of the evening, the visitors’ call to scrum a penalty in the shadow of the posts vindicated by another five-pointer to make it 0-19 at the break.
The purple tide, however, would immediately shift to the green of Irish following the restart and after a long period camped in the Saints’ 22, Hallam Chapman finally crashed over from a quick-tap penalty.
Saints regrouped and cancelled out the score by mauling Oisín Heffernan over for the bonus-point try, Grayson brilliantly converting from wide, but it was to prove only a brief respite.
The Exiles hit back with their own driving lineout and Joe Vajner’s effort dealt a double blow for Saints, with Robbie Smith yellow carded for sacking the initial maul.
Jacob Atkins added the extras to close the gap to 12 points and while Saints survived the remainder of the sin bin period unscathed, Logan Trotter soon rewarded more Irish pressure by scampering into the corner to setup a tense finale.
Pulses raced quicker when the home side launched a rapid break out of their own 22, but when a golden opportunity slipped through Trotter’s fingers on halfway, it seemed Saints might hold on.
There was still time on the clock though, and after Grayson fell marginally short with a monster penalty attempt from over 50 metres, Irish chipped their way up-field, turning the screw with a fatal series of lineout drives that culminated with the referee heading between the posts to award the deciding score.
IRISH: Trotter, Loader, Morisi, Hitchcock, Dykes, Jennings, O’Sullivan, Haffar, Harrison, Parker, Scragg, Munga, Cooke (c), Curtis-Harris, Atkins
Reps: Vajner, Jack, Summerfield, Chapman, Moore-Aiono, Allan, Atkins, Harmes
SAINTS: Ramm, Skosan, Litchfield, J Matavesi, O Sleightholme, J Grayson, Braley (c), Mulhall, Smith, Painter, Nansen, Ribbans, Sylvester, Hinkley, Graham
Reps: Gradwick-Light, Patten, Heffernan, Lockett, Pollock, McParland, Thame, Hendy